“When you are seventeen you aren’t really serious,” wrote the poet at 16, four years before he would give up on literature to pursue the less frivolous business of exploration and gun-running. It would appear that the times have changed considerably since Arthur Rimbaud, with his signature mixture of precociousness and pretentiousness, described how at 17 “your mad heart goes Crusoeing through all the romances” and “You’re in love. Taken until the month of August./You’re in love—Your sonnets make Her laugh/All your friends disappear, you are not quite the thing.”
Yes. At 17, no one is quite the thing.
With the cult of youth hitched to the grand kitsch-romance of 21st century nation-building, 17-year-olds have been made to assume the role of a vanguard unit that will create a nation that everyone today, openly or otherwise, aspires to live in. Goaded by the updated soviet-speak of Comrades A.P.J. Abdul Kalam and Chetan Bhagat, along with a media clambering over each other to tell the nation’s youth what they love and want (their supplies, of course), 17-year-old Indians form the core of this giant commando unit whose ‘demographic dividends’ we are always reminded to revere because one day....
...one day, the Puranas tell us, they will drag us all gently to the Golden Future.
The more determined among these 17-year-olds seem serious, far-too-serious, about their future as well as about The Future—the two stapled, gummed and pinned together till failure do them part. They prepare for lifestyle-affirming examinations that they will confront like dragon-slayers soon enough; they look out for the signs of jobs that they will wear like school uniforms after their education is done; they scheme and plan with a fierce efficiency to earn enough and a bit more when earning-time comes so that the good life isn’t elsewhere; and they are youthful activists, which 17-year-olds with a fondness for radical chic have always been, whether during the swadeshi, Naxal or Mandal movements or on today’s Facebooks and blogs.
But in all this 17-year-old brand of seriousness, there is much that is playful roleplay, a search for a role the way a tongue searches blindly to find and fill that gap between two teeth at the back of one’s mouth. For being 17 is not just an accumulation of one more year of being 16, or the simple state of waiting in the lounge till one attains the magical age of 18 when one can vote, marry, drink and drive (not necessarily in that order).
It is the age in which the happy naivete that comes with inexperience with the ways of the world collides and mixes with the notions of being an adult, being part of the world that lies beyond the school canteens, the antakshari sessions, the family outings to ‘malls’. The 17-year-old is, in the imagery of the Narasimha avatar, a mutant half-boy, half-man/half-girl, half-woman, standing at the threshold brimming with a once-in-a-lifetime advantage over all other ages and human life forms.
At 17, having fun shows the first signs of taking on a serious component, the way it does for 21-year-olds, but without the latter’s growing sense that fun is a luxury with its own social rules and etiquettes. These signs are of a rite of passage: that of behaving in a manner that youth expects—demands—of adulthood. (What adulthood expects of adulthood is tragic and will come later.)
|Illustration by Sorit
Take romance. At 17, one is fumbling with the knowledge that one is fumbling. A 16-year-old’s erotic nervousness is purely that of an explorer lost with a compass he doesn’t know how to read despite all the information out there to take tips from. The 17-year-old’s concern is his or her nervousness being transparent to everyone else. In that switch of a year, peer expectations have been added as an important parameter of how one should conduct oneself.
Carry out a snap poll among 16-year-olds and you’ll have most of them saying that they are not sexually experienced even if they are. Conduct a snap poll among 17-year-olds and you’ll have most of them saying that they are sexually experienced even if they aren’t. Such notions of peer expectations apply beyond the sexual to life itself.
The 17-year-old enters adulthood through the only way he or she is allowed to enter it: from the shallow end. Which is why at that age, the boy-man or the girl-woman is bent on proving more than any other person from any other age-group that he or she is at home with adulthood. The first heartache, the first heartbreak, the first drink, the first smoke, the first kiss, the first act of rebellion, the first show of social concern, the first demand for justice for others, not just oneself—all form part of this entry into the period drama, Adulthood.
This entry is accompanied by melodramatic method acting that can exasperate or tickle the full-blown adult. How many times have you experienced a 17-year-old ‘not acting his age’? By which one means the youngster using ‘difficult’ words, wanting to change the world, quoting the Existentialists (or French Symbolist poets such as Arthur Rimbaud, for that matter), or talking about love and death with the seriousness that those in the know would be too embarrassed to. The 17-year-old wants to be taken seriously. And in the process of trying too hard ends up far too many times as the laughing stock.
Which is why any comparison of a nation at 17 with a 17-year-old person, despite its innate ludicrousness (after all, a nation’s people didn’t just pop out of a geographically marked vagina 17 years before) does highlight one shared aspect of a mid-youth crisis: that of looking around at ‘others’ and trying to figure out how to match up to them. So at 1964, a 17-year-old India did look around to see how other democracies are faring. (It’s another matter that it was not before 1991 that a 21-year-old India decided to ‘man up’.) At 17, the girl-woman will look around to see whether participating in a candle-light vigil will enhance her standing as a ‘concerned citizen’—a whole year before she is provided full citizens’ rights.
Having gathered a critical mass of years in existence, 17 is also the age when one suddenly discovers the narcotic joys of being nostalgic (‘Oh, for the days when we would go to Kanpur during the winter holidays!’), instead of engaging in the ‘childish activity’ of simply remembering.
But the momentous event that takes place when someone turns 17 is far more fundamental and awe-inspiring. Because the changes that a 17-year-old undergoes are nothing compared to the changes in the world the person starts to see when he hits 17. Not 16, not 18. But 17.
(Indrajit Hazra is a writer and journalist. He is consultant editor with Hindustan Times where he writes the Sunday column, Red Herring.)